Review: Chung Hing Sam Lam (Chungking Express, 1994)

chungking-express

I would love to have a girlfriend as trippy and interesting as Faye Wong, but there aren’t many girls like that in the lily white suburbs of Illinois!

Written By: Kar Wai Wong
Directed By: Kar Wai Wong

I tend to be a major proponent of substance over style in my cinema, that’s one of the main reasons why I am not a Quintin Tarantino fan. However, every once in a while a film will come around that is so rich with style and harbors meaningful themes beneath said style that it transcends its lack of story structure or substance. Chung Hing Sam Lam is a movie that if viewed in a traditional sense doesn’t really work, because it doesn’t contain much meat in the way of story. What it does contain however is plenty of directorial excellence, beautiful cinematography, excellent music, deep themes that are true in every society and for every people, some great acting and loads of style. I will not lie and try to sound like some expert on Hong Kong cinema, I am far from it and I have long considered Hong Kong cinema an area where my film watching needed to improve. While I was already exposed to the standard martial arts films, Chung Hing Sam Lam has now ensured my interest in the rest of Hong Kong cinema.

There’s really no need to go into either story presented in Chung Hing Sam Lam, because in reality the film isn’t about the stories, but rather the feelings and emotions that both stories engender. A while back I reviewed the film Babel, a bloated film that misfired in its every attempt to get across the theme of loss of communication in the world. Chung Hing Sam Lam takes on that same issue in far better fashion, although it presents loss of communication more as a function of our regular habits. We are creatures of habit and ritual and we prefer that our daily routine is not disturbed. In both stories the male police officer loses his girlfriend and as a result his daily routine is thrown for a loop because now he must communicate with a woman he otherwise never would have. It isn’t so much that there is a loss of communication in the world, instead there is an avoidance of communication and a reliance on what we know. Every day there are countless chances for us to communicate with someone new, but we choose not to take them because we don’t want to rock the boat.

The other major dual theme expressed in Chung Hing Sam Lam is love and loneliness. For Cop 223, love is like a sickness and his loneliness from a lack of love is eating away at his soul. For Cop 663 his love is all encompassing and the loss of it creates a void in his life from which he loses all sensory perception. Faye can make all the changes she wants to his life, but until he has gotten over the loss of his girlfriend he will be oblivious to every one of them. The theme of Chung Hing Sam Lam that I connected with the most was that love connects all of us, it is both our great provider and our divine destroyer. When love is going great for us life follows suit, but when love has turned on us the rest of the world follows the same course and so we become dead to the rest of the world. The depth that the themes are given in Chung Hing Sam Lam is why people are wrong when they say this film is all style and no substance. It doesn’t feature much of a substantive story, but there is plenty of substance to be found in its themes.

Stylistically Chung Hing Sam Lam is a visual delight, with a style that isn’t easily described because it takes elements from almost every period in film history. Kar Wai Wong certainly has a distinct visual style in that he uses every visual tool in his direction and that ensures Chung Hing Sam Lam has a look unlike any of the movies it pays homage to. There are slow motion sequences, different film stocks, every type of camera shot you could imagine, incredible lighting and so much more. It is truly amazing when Chung Hing Sam Lam has the feel and look of a dark noir in one scene and in the next has the look of a 70’s exploitation film and then shifts completely in the opposite direction to look like a John Hughes romantic comedy in another scene. Another key to Chung Hing Sam Lam was the neon brightness to the film. It is dark in places, but there is always a neon glare to the film that combined with the busy and harried nature of the film manages to capture a Hong Kong that feels alluring, mysterious and a whole lot of dangerous.

The performances in Chung Hing Sam Lam are small across the board, and by that I mean that they allow their characters to inhabit the emotions that are consuming them. Cop 223 is introspective, Cop 663 is dead to the world, the woman in the blond wig is scared and hiding behind a disguise while Faye is full of life and just waiting for someone to notice. I think out of all the performances Faye Wong as Faye was the most captivating, because she is impossibly cut and very much the manic pixie dream girl. I don’t for a second believe that there is a woman like Faye out there, but that doesn’t matter. Faye Wong made me care and fall in love with this Faye, and that’s good enough for me.

I don’t need to add my voice to the many that champion Chung Hing Sam Lam, but I will anyways because I have never been one to not pile on. I would say based on the small number of votes this film has garnered on IMDB as well as the fact that it appears to be a very niche film that maybe it could use a little more championing. Any film buff that hasn’t seen Chung Hing Sam Lam needs to correct that mistake, it is a breathtaking film full of originality, deep themes, great performances, heck, great everything that deserves to be seen. There’s not much I can say after that, other than if you haven’t seen Chung Hing Sam Lam yet you are denying yourself a true cinematic treat.

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill

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3 responses to “Review: Chung Hing Sam Lam (Chungking Express, 1994)

  1. I liked this film a lot as well. I think you’re correct in arguing that the film’s depth is found in the themes, images and sounds. Storytelling takes somewhat of a backseat for the director to take the viewer away on a very sensory journey.

  2. Pingback: Postulating & Pontificating: Directing Props, Pt. 1! | Bill's Movie Emporium

  3. The only way I would augment your comment Edgar is that I do believe there are two individual stories in this film. They are told through the sensory journey you mention. Not conventional storytelling, but still storytelling.

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